The Alabama House of Representatives met in Montgomery to consider legislation as the 2020 legislative session winds down. The House has yet to act on either budget, but that is scheduled to change Thursday, when they pass both the state general fund (SGF) and education trust fund (ETF) budgets.
House Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) asked, “Are we going to do both budgets?”
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) answered, “Tomorrow will be a long day.”
McCutcheon advised members that they probably need to get a hotel room in Montgomery on Thursday night.
Many legislators are driving back and forth between their homes and the Statehouse due to COVID-19 concerns.
On Wednesday, the House passed 31 of members uncontested local bills. The Senate similarly addressed local legislation. These are bills that apply to just one county, city, or town.
Alabama has an arcane budgeting system where over 93 percent of state revenues are earmarked and there are multiple pots of money.
The SGF funds about 80 non-education state agencies. Many of the state agencies also have their own revenue streams. Insurance taxes, sales taxes, use taxes, interest on the Alabama Trust Fund, etc. all flow into the SGF.
The ETF funds education. K-12 education, the state two-year college system, and higher education are all funded in the education budget. State income tax dollars are all earmarked for education. The ETF also collects some sales, use, and ad valorem taxes.
The state also has $billions in income that are outside of the budgeting process. By far the largest income source for Alabama state government is federal dollars, though most of that is for specific purposes such as: roads, public health, Medicaid, etc.
Tuesday the Alabama Senate passed the 2021 state general fund budget (SGF). Despite the economic fallout from the forced economic downturn, the Senate passed a $2,391,206,601 SGF budget, a $168,860,692 increase over the 2020 budget of $2,222,345,909. The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee has amended the Senate passed version of the budget, so it will still have to go back to the Senate for them to either concur to the House changes or send the SGF to a conference committee.
The ETF also shows an increase over the 2020 budget. The 2021 ETF is $7,217,422,487, a $91,527,235 increase over the 2020 ETF. This is the largest education budget in state history: but is far less than what legislators expected in February when the legislative sessions began.
K-12 education is slated to get $4,952,141,395 a $71,564,486 increase from 2020. Higher education is budgeted to get $1,837,442,288, a $29,898,018 increase over 2020. Other state agencies with an appropriation from the ETF are budgeted to receive $427,838,804 a $9,935,269 cut from 2020.
In 2020 K-12 got 68.49 percent of the ETF funds. In 2021 that increased to 68.61 percent, a 0.12 percent increase. Higher ED received 25.37 percent of the funds in 2020. In 2021 that increases to 25.46 percent of the ETF. In 2020 other agencies received 6.14 percent increase. Those agencies were cut to just 5.93 percent of the ETF.
The House has to pass the ETF, before it can go to the Senate for their consideration.
Critics of the budgeting process have questioned the assumptions in both of these budgets. In February the economy was growing, stocks were up, and unemployment was at record lows. In March the rapidly spreading coronavirus global pandemic led to President Donald J. Trump (R) and the nation’s governors to shut down the economy.
The shutdowns have resulted in a global economic collapse. Oil prices have plummeted to record lows due to the lack of demand. Legislators are hoping that the economy can reopen and that it can snap back to something near what it was in February. The coronavirus continues to be a drag on the economy. 74,807 Americans have already died from COVID-19, including 2,528 on Wednesday.
If this turns into a long, protracted recession, state revenues could fall to their lowest levels in years. The ETF has hundreds of millions in reserves in the rolling reserve and the technology fund that could be still be accessed. A deep and protracted recession could require legislators to come back in special session to prorate the budgets.
The Senate wants to pass a number of bills to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The House, on the other hand, insists that they will only pass budgets and local bills. Unless that changes, this session could end as early as Friday.
Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail
Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday.
Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.
He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal.
“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports.
The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations.
The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.
The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign.
“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”
Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws
David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council.
“The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated.
The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018.
In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.
The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.
Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage
What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job.
These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.
The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials.
Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices.
The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.
“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”
Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare.
Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities.
A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest.
“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”
Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace.
That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents.
“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.
“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”
The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like.
On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49
As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.
At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.
“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.
Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.
“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”
Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.
There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.
Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.
The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”